The stage is set this summer for a battle on the Hill about marijuana legalization and what U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions really can and will do after months of hints, uncertainty, pleas for reasonable responses and knee-jerk reactions from financial institutions.
It follows a battle of letters that began this spring.
On April 3, governors from Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington wrote a letter to both Sessions and U.S. Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin pleading with the Trump administration to engage in a dialogue with them before changing any marijuana regulatory and enforcement systems.
Then, in a memo to all states attorneys on April 5, Sessions announced the formation of a task force on crime reduction and public safety, adding that the task force subcommittees “will also undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana to ensure consistency with the Department’s overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with Administration goals and priorities,” Sessions wrote. “I have asked for initial recommendations from the task force no later than July 27th, but will continue to act upon recommendations as they become available and direct the policy of the Department on an ongoing basis.”
A few weeks later, in a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on May 1, Sessions wrote that he wanted to “renew the DOJ opposition to the inclusion of language in any appropriations legislation that would prohibit the use of DOJ funds or in any way inhibit its authority to enforce the Controlled Substance Act”, and that it would be “unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime.”
He went on to cite a Colorado case where a licensed medical marijuana producer was a “ringleader of a criminal organization” that also shipped marijuana out of state.
So twice within a span of two months, Sessions issued veiled and not-so-veiled threats that he was coming after the industry. That made industry watchers take a closer look at what he was saying, reasoning the logical implications of what could happen next.
Thus, the pushback began.
In a letter to Sessions dated June 15, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolfe talked about the legislation legalizing medical marijuana in his state, adding that, since he signed the legislation, the state has taken very careful and deliberate steps to implement the law so that “those who are suffering can get relief while ensuring that the state is a responsible steward of the program.
“I am disturbed to know that you are actively pursuing a change in federal law to go after medical marijuana suppliers,” he wrote. “We do not need the federal government getting in the way of Pennsylvania’s right to deliver them relief through our new medical marijuana program.” He concluded that if Sessions went any further, Wolfe would work with the state’s attorney general and take legal action.
The following week, on June 21, PNC Bank closed the 22-year account of the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy organization that doesn’t touch the plant, setting off alarms that trickled down to other financial institutions who began closing personal and business accounts related to the industrial hemp pilot program.
So on June 30, another letter to Sessions.
This one came from Senators Rand Paul, Ron Wyden, Michael Bennet, Jeffrey Merkley and Al Franken, citing the closure of those hemp-related accounts, and that “this situation is evidently due to the uncertainty of the continued legal status of the industrial hemp imdustry.”
As a result of these letters, it looks like things will be coming to a head soon. The fight on the Hill is getting more interesting, as Congress prepares to vote on the Rohrabacher- Blumenauer amendment as part of the appropriations bill for 2018.
That amendment has had a history of being battered and bruised in Congress. Originally introduced in 2003 by U.S. Representatives Maurice Hinchey, Dana Rohrabacher and Sam Farr – known then as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment – it prohibits the DOJ from funding cannabis-related prosecutions against states that are acting in accordance with their own medical marijuana laws.
It was defeated multiple times until it passed in 2014 and became law as part of the appropriations bill. It has to be renewed each fiscal year. And each year, that pending renewal stirs up fears that something could happen to it.
This summer, with all the noise coming from the DOJ, it could get ugly. The July 27th deadline for task force recommendations is upon us, and the House vote on the 2018 appropriations bill could come before the August recess.